Her-Stories: Female-Led K-Dramas (Ensembles)
Updated: Mar 13, 2021
In GwenchaNoona's second feature for Women's Month, we focus on female-led k-dramas that explore women's experiences at every stage of life. We honor the women who bear the emotional labor of the world by giving birth, raising a family, and caring for their friends in their old age, all while building a career and nurturing relationships in their social circles.
Hello, My Twenties! / Age of Youth Seasons 1 and 2 (2016, 2017)
Do you remember what your 20s were like? If you do, would you consider them bitter or sweet memories?
Hello, My Twenties! walks us through the lives of a group of young women who live in Belle Epoque. The drama depicts typical growing pains, such as transitioning to college life, facing financial struggles, and—yes, everyone's favorite—dealing with romantic relationships. On paper, it sounds like any other barkada drama, but if viewers were to look beyond the tropey plot points and character descriptions, they will find serious discussions on social justice and women's rights. Hello, My Twenties! uses trippy cut scenes and hilarious commentary to point out society's expectations on women: "Women should keep quiet about their struggles. They should always smile through hardships". As we get to know more about these women, including their fears and struggles (such as workplace harassment and toxic relationships), we realize that this drama is more than your typical slice-of-life barkada show. It's actually a realistic depiction of women who are learning to "adult." A fair warning though, there are definitely plot holes ahead and a confusing change of cast in season 2 that will trip viewers out.
Highly amusing and hilarious, women will definitely relate to these young ladies as they make amends with their past and bravely live out their youth in the present moment.
*Trigger Warning: Violence against Women, Sexual Abuse on Minor, Mental Health Issues
Search: WWW (2019)
South Korea may have one of the lowest ratios of female executives among industrialized countries, but not in the world of Search: WWW.
Our three heroines in this k-drama are rich and successful directors who control the country's two biggest web portals—the websites that people access every day to search for all types of information. But their power extends beyond the companies they work in. In their roles, Bae Ta-mi (Lim Soo-jung), Cha Hyun (Lee Da-hee), and Song Ka-kyung (Jeon Hye-jin) are in a unique position to influence the national conversation.
Over 16 episodes, we watch the three women brainstorm and execute innovative business tactics to outwit each other and increase their market shares, with the sort of corporate maneuvering often just seen among men. Along the way, they also struggle with the unusual power they hold to shape narratives, while balancing dating, cheating boyfriends and a controlling mother-in-law. Yes, our heroines do have relationships, too. But in the world of Search: WWW, men are just supporting characters designed to aid our three strong leads as they find their place and their voice in corporate Korea.
Birthcare Center (2020)
How much of a woman’s life and individuality does she have to give up upon becoming a mother?
Oh Hyun-jin (Um Ji-won) is a highly successful career woman who unexpectedly finds out she’s pregnant with her first child right after getting a long-awaited promotion. After giving birth (in the most realistic childbirth scene ever shown in a k-drama), she checks into a sanhujoliwon, an upscale hotel-type postnatal care center popular among Seoul’s upper class.
Accustomed to being at the top of her game as a cosmetics retail industry professional, she is dismayed to find herself looked down upon as the oldest yet most inexperienced mother at the birth care center. At the bottom of the totem pole, she constantly doubts whether she’s cut out for motherhood at all, and desperately fumbles to keep up with the other moms who seem to know everything, especially supermom "Queen Bee" Cho Eun-jeong (Park Ha-sun).
Birthcare Center is a satirical, sometimes dark, yet also heartwarming take on the struggles of being a mother to an infant: the difficulty of breastfeeding, constant fear of judgment over the choices made, and the competitiveness of mothers from the moment their babies are born (like a SKY Castle for newborns), as well as the challenges of trying to achieve some semblance of work-life balance and keeping romance alive in a marriage once children are in the picture.
SKY Castle (2018)
Just how far would you go to get your child in an Ivy League university? SKY Castle takes a look at wealthy, suburban families as they spare no expense, lie, cheat, and manipulate their way for their child’s entrance to Korea’s top universities. The suspenseful and riveting series follows four families who live in the posh and luxurious neighborhood Sky Castle. (SKY is also an acronym of the three most prestigious universities in Korea: Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University.)
It’s desperate housewives meets tiger mom on overdrive in this second highest-rated cable show (of all time!) in Korea. With powerful performances by its female-led cast (Yum Jung-ah, Lee Tae-ran, Yoon Se-ah, Oh Na-ra, and Kim Seo-hyung), the show not only racked up ratings, but forced the viewing public to engage in a conversation about Korea’s demanding school system that sees already-stressed out students go to "cram school" (entrance test preparation schools for high schools or universities) for several hours every night after regular school. It’s a nail-biting, hair pulling, finger-wagging experience for any viewer, with some surprising dark comedy thrown in. Shoutout to the brilliant soundtrack by Ha Jin.
Avengers' Social Club (2017)
When youth has passed and all that remain are responsibilities, are women expected to just grin and bear it? Hell no! At least, according to the women (and man) of the Avengers' Social Club.
The viewers are introduced to three women (and their token handsome young man) of different social statures who are all living in quiet desperation due to different circumstances (mostly men and money) in their life. Unhappy with her husband's decision to let his illegitimate son live in their house, Kim Jung-Hye (Lee Yo-won) brings together fishmonger Hong Do-hee (Ra Mi-ran) and housewife Lee Mi-sook (Myung Se-bin) to form a revenge club called BJ club (BJ meaning Bok-ja, the hangul term for revenge). Along the way, Kim Jung-hye's stepson, Lee Soo-gyum (Lee Jun-young) joins their little club. Together, these four band together to make their husbands and tormentors pay for their wrongdoings, and—as a bonus—form meaningful bonds with each other. They eventually become what Kim Jung-hye aptly describes as "strangers that are closer than family."
Avengers' Social Club is a hilarious commentary on what middle-aged women have to endure to protect their families from the society...and from their own families.
*Trigger Warning: Domestic Abuse
Glorious Day (2014)
Single mother Han Song-jong (played by Kim Mi-sook) has raised three daughters by herself: Jung Da-ae, the sensitive and responsible eldest sister, Jung Da-jung, the spunky and loyal middle child, and Jung Da-in, the spirited and carefree youngest sister. Glorious Day follows the women through 44 episodes as they face challenges in their career and relationships and define and redefine what it means to be family.
In 2014, the SBS network wanted to release more makjang-free shows. This weekend series was part of the lineup. Viewers who are drawn to slice-of-life dramas will then appreciate the quiet simplicity of this story, where emotions are deep but not exaggerated, situations believable but not simplistic, and characters relatable but not uninteresting. The ensemble cast includes veteran actress Na Moon-hee as the lovable and memorable grandmother next door.
Dear My Friends (2016)
Penned by Noh Hee-kyung (It’s Okay, That’s Love, 2014; Live, 2018), one of the masters of the slice-of-life genre, Dear My Friends features a powerhouse ensemble composed of some of the most awarded and beloved senior actors in Korea. With its formidable cast and seasoned writer, it beat the very popular Goblin for Baeksang Best Drama in 2017.
Dear My Friends is seen from the point of view of Park Wan (Go Hyun-jung), a 30-something translator who can’t seem to make up her mind about being in a long-distance relationship with her male friend in Slovenia (a very swoony Jo In-sung in a special role). Despite her vehement protests, she reluctantly keeps getting roped into the drama of her headstrong mother Jang Nan-hee (Go Doo-shim) and her friends: Jo Hee-ja (Kim Hye-ja) who insists on living independently despite the onset of dementia, Moon Jeong-ah (Na Moon-hee) who is constantly at battle with her ornery and stingy husband, Oh Chung-nam (Yoon Yuh-jung) whose artist "friends" treat her as a piggybank, and Lee Young-won (Park Won-sook), who hides deep scars behind her glamorous actress façade.
A frustrated novelist, Park Wan eventually gives in to their requests to document their life stories, and learns valuable life lessons along the way. Incredibly poignant, surprisingly funny, and featuring the beautiful sights of Slovenia and Croatia, Dear My Friends is a healing, life-affirming celebration of friends who become family and the beauty of growing old with them by your side.